Activating Workers? The Political Economy of Active Social Policy in Postindustrial Democracies

Document Type




Format of Original

43 p.

Publication Date



Emerald Group Publishing Ltd.

Source Publication

Comparing European Workers Part B: Policies and Institutions

Source ISSN


Original Item ID

doi: 10.1108/S0277-2833(2011)000022B004


Purpose – Since the mid-1980s, unemployment policy reforms in Europe and throughout the rich democracies have stressed publicly supported activation of the unemployed through both reductions in perceived disincentives to work as well as commitments for improved training, employment services, and related policies. In this chapter, I systematically explore the domestic and international political economic sources of these policy changes.

Methodology/approach – I test a set of hypotheses – original and derivative – about the domestic and international determinants of labor market policy change through pooled time-series cross-section analysis of 1980-to-2002 annual data from 18 capitalist democracies. The dependent variables consist of national spending on active labor market policy, measures of passive unemployment compensation benefits, and the ratio of active to passive unemployment program spending. Causal models account for spatial diffusion of policy reforms as well as core political and economic determinants of policy change.

Findings – I find that Left party governments and coordinated market institutions buoy resources for active labor market programs, maintain relatively generous passive unemployment supports and entitlements, and, at the same time, foster a shift to more active social policy. International trade openness promotes generous active labor market policies while more left-leaning voters and veto points within the polity significantly constrain reductions in unemployment benefits and entitlement rights. De-industrialization reinforces policy reforms toward activation while high unemployment rates engender cuts in passive unemployment benefits and eligibility conditions.

Originality/value – Overall, the chapter demonstrates that the economic effects on policy change notwithstanding, politics fundamentally matters: domestic political dynamics and variations in institutions explain the preponderance of the change (or lack thereof) in unemployment policy.


Comparing European Workers Part B: Policies and Institutions, Vol. 22 (June 2011): 9-51. DOI.